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International Manufacturing Technology Show 2018

Last week we attended the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, and we returned with increased confidence in our bullish outlook for the robotics and automation market. From what we saw, there is no doubt: the factory of the future is now!

The mood for the entire show was clearly positive, and that energy was reflected in a truly record-breaking event. Attendance was up by nearly 8,000, hitting 129,415, and more than 2,500 companies were featured on the exhibition floor, including many members of the ROBO Global Index Series. And while the growth of the event itself was not a surprise given the current state of the US economy and pervasive optimism among the executives we speak to every day in our coverage of the global robotics, automation, and AI industry, we were excited to hear so many attendees comment on the rapid expansion of the automation customer base. More manufacturers want to automate, and they are more aware and educated about available solutions than they have been in the past. One catalyst is clearly the drop in cost for these solutions, which translates to an expected return on investment in under two years.

Across the industry, there are powerful factors at play. The push toward higher performance in robotics, automation, and AI is driving exponential technology advancements in sensing, computing, actuation, and integration. That shift is putting the law of accelerated returns into action, effectively doubling the capacity of these technologies every year while driving down the price-for-performance. This combination makes it possible to deliver extremely powerful sensors and chips at a much more reasonable cost. At the same time, hyper-scale data centers can now process enormous amounts of data in milliseconds, and ultra-fast and reliable communication networks can deliver intelligence to machines wherever we need them. Every year, the bar is continuing to drop in terms of complexity of programming, flexibility for redeployment, and the need for Fortune 500-type engineering capabilities. And every year, we’re seeing a significant expansion of the market to address the needs—and budgets—of SMEs.

At every turn, it was clear that the delivery of increasingly affordable solutions is the key to increased demand. In Chicago, one of the best examples of that was the ubiquitous presence of collaborative robots (cobots). New capabilities in edge computing are making collaborative robots quicker and easier to program, while reducing implementation time and initial investment levels. Some of these robots don’t even require programming knowledge at all, which is driving dramatic increases in flexibility and enabling them to perform multiple tasks flawlessly. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that many of these advanced collaborative robots are now available for under $45k.

The clear winner at the show was Universal Robots, which was acquired by ROBO Global index member Teradyne in 2015. The company’s robots were everywhere at the show where they celebrated the news that they had just sold their 25,000th unit—more than all other competitors combined. Universal Robots has grown more than 50% per year in the last 5 years, and it now holds more than 60% of the market share in this sector that is on track to reach $1B by 2020.

Global industrial robotics leaders Fanuc, ABB, and Yaskawa each presented their latest solutions with a focus on collaborative functions and self-learning capabilities. Mobile autonomous robots were front and center, with MiR (also a recent Teradyne acquisition), Omron, and Fetch Robotics all making impressive showings. We also saw exciting innovations in gripping and sensing, longstanding bottlenecks for broader robotics adoption, from ON Robotics. Machine vision dominated many exhibits, which is a boon for providers like Cognex and Keyence. Cognex’s demonstration of its VisionPro ViDi was particularly impressive, highlighting this breakthrough in complex inspection which is the first deep-learning-based image analysis software designed specifically for factory automation. And while we have long seen machine vision and 3D measurement as two of the most promising areas of factory automation from an investor’s perspective, it is now clear that 3D inspection and measurement is clearly taking off. Hexagon, Renishaw, Faro, and others demonstrated their quick, automated 3D scan to CAD solutions, and Autodesk and Dassault Systèmes highlighted the latest in 3D software. These and other innovations are fueling accelerated adoption of 3D printing and additive manufacturing solutions from the likes of 3D Systems, Renishaw, and Stratasys, whose lasers, which were long confined to the lab, are now delivering high-speed, efficient metal cutting and welding on factory floors.

Spoken or not, what seemed to be on everyone’s minds was the potential impact of US tariffs on the market overall. Of the many ROBO Global index members we spoke to at the show, the majority shared our view that US tariffs will likely create some near-term headwinds across the robotics and AI supply chains. However, many key components are supplied from companies in Asia, including THK, SMC, Hiwin and Airtac, and these companies are likely to continue to see rising demand to meet the growing need for factory automation at US manufacturers—regardless of tariffs. (For more on the impact of tariffs on robotics, automation, and AI, see my recent blog post on the topic.) However, considering the high degree of uncertainty around the impact of tariffs on the automotive industry, it was not surprising to hear that automotive manufacturers have ordered fewer robots so far this year than last. But across the industry as a whole, demand is continuing to trend strongly upward.

Peter R. Eelman, one of the creators of the show, said, “Connectivity, the digital transformation of manufacturing, automation, additive manufacturing, and a strong economy drove record numbers at IMTS 2018.” And while that is certainly true, what was even more impressive was the level of excitement and the overwhelming confidence of exhibitors and attendees. And with good reason. Never has there been such a push for innovation, and never has there been such a pull of customer demand. Those in the industry see the future coming toward us at full speed. Engineers, developers, marketers and investors all agree: the factory of the future is now!

By Jeremie Capron, Director of Research, ROBO Global

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